California congressional races to watch in the June primary

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 05: The U.S. Capitol Building, photographed on Friday, Nov. 5, 2021 in Washington, DC. After months of negotiations between progressives and moderates, House Democrats hope to hold votes on the bipartisan infrastructure bill and social spending bill on Friday. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)
Key congressional races in California could help decide control of the House — or Republicans' margin in Congress and the power of the next speaker. Above, the U.S. Capitol in Washington. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times)
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California’s 2022 congressional races are expected to be some of the most expensive and contentious in the nation as the GOP attempts to retake control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

In the most competitive districts, the two candidates who will face each other after the June 7 primary are pretty much determined; those races won't kick off with intensity until the general election in the fall.

The outcome of a handful of contests in the state’s top-two primary in June could tilt the parties' prospects in the general election. The Republicans have many advantages: The party in the White House typically loses seats during the first midterm cycle, President Biden's approval ratings are low and voters are frustrated by economic issues such as inflation and high gas prices.

Those key races could decide the GOP's margin in the House and the power of the next House speaker, likely Rep. Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield. Candidates in some races are trying to pick their rival by boosting the person they believe would be the easiest to beat in the Nov. 8 general election.

Under the state's primary rules, the two candidates who receive the most votes in June will advance to the fall election —regardless of party affiliation. But in nearly every contest, because of the partisan makeup of districts, a Republican and Democrat will almost certainly be on the ballot in November.

California's congressional delegation is overwhelmingly Democratic — the party holds 42 seats, while the GOP represents 10. (One is vacant because of Devin Nunes' resignation to go work for former President Trump's social-media company). But there are several parts of the state where voters have vacillated between the two parties in recent elections, notably in the one-time conservative bastion of Orange County.

These are the battlegrounds to watch in the primary and beyond.

Marquee races in June

Congressional District 27

Portraits of Mike Garcia, Christy Smith and John Quaye Quartey
Rep. Mike Garcia, left, former Assembly member Christy Smith and combat veteran John Quaye Quartey

Democrats Christy Smith, a former assemblywoman, and John Quaye Quartey, a combat veteran, are battling to take on GOP Rep. Mike Garcia in this northern Los Angeles County district that is viewed as one of Democrats' best shots to flip a seat nationwide.

The left-leaning district became even more so after redistricting, with Democrats now holding a nearly 12-point voter edge.

Garcia, a former Navy pilot, has defeated Smith twice — the last time by 333 votes. Quartey has never held elected office, but has raised about as much money as Smith. (Garcia has swamped both of them in fundraising.)

Whichever Democrat makes it to the general election in November will likely argue that Garcia is out of step with voters in the district, once a historic Republican stronghold that has become more liberal as it has grown more diverse and attracted young families seeking affordable housing.

Congressional District 49

Several Republicans hope to topple two-term Democratic Rep. Mike Levin in this district that straddles Orange and San Diego counties. After redistricting, Democrats here have a little more than a 2-point voter edge.

Levin's strongest rivals are Orange County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett; Brian Maryott, the former mayor of San Juan Capistrano who is partly funding his own campaign and has been endorsed by the state GOP, and Oceanside City Councilman Christopher Rodriguez.

Levin has sent out mailers to GOP voters in the district that emphasize Rodriguez’s support of the repeal of Roe vs. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that legalized abortion across the nation that the Supreme Court is poised to overturn. This messaging would likely boost Rodriguez's credentials among conservatives who tend to oppose abortion rights. Maryott, the mailer says, has not taken a public position on Roe. It makes no mention of Bartlett.

Maryott shot back that he has consistently been against abortion. and that Levin “has clearly shown his hand” in which rival he would like to face in November.

Congressional District 40

Republican Rep. Young Kim of La Habra is running in a safer GOP district than her current one. Yet her decision to spend more than $1 million advertising before the primary, notably against a cash-strapped GOP opponent, suggests that the incumbent may be in a more precarious position than political experts expected.

The strategy could be driven by the fact that the new district, which includes parts of Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, includes only 21% of Kim's prior constituents. Incumbents with strong fundraising rarely use their money in a way that could boost the name familiarity of their rivals. But Kim's campaign recently launched television ads, mailers and texts alleging that Mission Viejo City Councilman Greg Raths, a fellow Republican and Trump devotee, is as liberal as Democratic President Biden.

Democrat Asif Mahmood, a physician who unsuccessfully ran for state insurance commissioner in 2018, is expected to face off with whichever Republican emerges in the top two in June. His campaign is actively boosting Raths’ profile among GOP voters, a signal that he would rather face Raths, who has unsuccessfully run for Congress three times previously.

Open seats

Congressional District 3

Portraits of physician Kermit Jones, Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones and Assemblyman Kevin Kiley.
Physician Kermit Jones, left, Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones and Assemblyman Kevin Kiley. (AP; Getty; Fresno Bee)

This congressional district, which includes some of the state’s most beautiful vistas such as the Sierras and South Lake Tahoe, is an open seat because GOP Rep. Tom McClintock opted to run in a nearby district that has more registered Republicans.

Still, Republicans have a 5-point voter edge in this newly drawn district, which includes Placer, Nevada, Mono, Sierra, Inyo, Plumas and Alpine counties and parts of Yuba, Sacramento and El Dorado counties.

Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, who unsuccessfully ran in last year’s gubernatorial recall and has been endorsed by Trump and the state GOP, and Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones are the more prominent Republicans seeking this seat.

The Republican who emerges in the top two is expected to compete against Kermit Jones, a physician and attorney who has been endorsed by the state’s Democratic Party.

Congressional District 13

Portraits of David Giglio, Adam Gray, Phil Arballo and John Duarte
Clockwise from top left: David Giglio , Adam Gray, Phil Arballo and John Duarte

Two incumbent Democratic congressmen opted not to run in this district, creating an open seat in the Central Valley that includes all of Merced County and swaths of Fresno, Madera, San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties.

Democrats have a 14-point edge in the district, and Latino citizens of voting age make up just over 50% of the population.

The four candidates who have raised the most money in the race are Democrats Phil Arballo, who unsuccessfully ran against then-Rep. Devin Nunes in 2020, and Assemblyman Adam Gray, who won the state Democratic Party endorsement, and Republican businessmen David Giglio and John Duarte.

Congressional District 42

Robert Garcia, the mayor of Long Beach, and Cristina Garcia, an Assemblywoman, are the top Democrats running to represent this new, overwhelmingly Democratic, Latino-majority district that stretches from Southeast L.A. cities down to Long Beach.

It was created by the state's redistricting commission as California lost a congressional seat for the first time in its history. It combined chunks of districts represented by two veteran members of Congress, who both announced in December that they would retire at the end of their terms.

The two Garcias are Gen Xers, the children of immigrants and the focus of national attention for their work — Robert for the pandemic and Cristina for the #MeToo movement. Both are unabashedly liberal, a fit in a district where Democrats have a 38-point voter registration edge over Republicans.

Robert Garcia, who comes from the more affluent part of the district, has a significant edge in endorsements and fundraising. He and his allies appear to be targeting Republican John Briscoe, a little known perennial candidate who is an Ocean View School District trustee and a real estate broker. One of Robert Garcia's first television ads highlighted Briscoe’s ties to Trump, a move viewed by political experts as an effort to raise the profile of his weakest rival. If Briscoe places in the top two in June, this race is over, given the district’s deep blue tilt.

Congressional District 37

Rep. Karen Bass, one of California’s three Black congresswomen, decided to run for mayor of Los Angeles instead of seeking reelection.

Seven candidates are vying to replace Bass, including state Sen. Sydney Kamlager and former Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jan Perry. Kamlager won the backing of Bass as well as other prominent House Democrats, including Rep. Adam B. Schiff. Perry has been endorsed by Rep. Maxine Waters, a powerhouse in Black politics in Los Angeles.

The district, which includes South Los Angeles, Leimert Park, Ladera Heights and part of Culver City, is solidly blue. Democrats have a 59-point voter registration edge over Republicans, and the district is expected to continue to be represented by a Black politician.

Endangered incumbents in the general

Other California contests are expected to be highly competitive in the general election, but the top two candidates appear to be largely set before the primary.

Congressional District 47

Rep. Katie Porter is a Democratic star, famous for her use of whiteboards to simplify complex financial issues and her incisive questioning of business executives. The suburban minivan-driving single mom, a protégé of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), is also one of Congress’ most prodigious fundraisers. She is widely expected to run for Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s seat when it is vacant.

But Porter has to get through the 2022 election first, and redistricting made her race harder. Democrats have a scant 1-point edge in her new district, which includes much of the Orange County coast as well as inland cities such as Irvine and Costa Mesa.

Republican attorney Scott Baugh — a former state assemblyman and chair of the Orange County GOP — is her main challenger. While he has raised a fraction of the money Porter has, his extensive ties to the country’s wealthy donor community have allowed him to bank seven figures.

Congressional District 45

Rep. Michelle Steel made history as one of the first Korean American women in Congress when she won her Orange County seat in 2020.

Redistricting has imperiled the incumbent. After Steel’s Seal Beach home was drawn into the same district as Porter, she chose to run in the 45th district, which contains a large number of Asian American voters in communities such as Little Saigon, Cerritos and Artesia. Democrats have a 5-point advantage in this district.

Democrat Jay Chen, the son of Taiwanese immigrants and a Navy reserve intelligence officer, is her main rival.

The race between the candidates has grown increasingly nasty, with allegations of racism, misogyny and red-baiting.

Congressional District 22

GOP Rep. David Valadao (R-Hanford) is the incumbent in this Central Valley district, which includes parts of Kern, Kings and Tulare counties.

He was one of 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Trump during his second impeachment. That move prompted two GOP candidates, former Fresno City Councilman Chris Mathys and Kings County Board of Education Trustee Adam Medeiros, to challenge Valadao on his right flank. Neither has been able to secure Trump's endorsement or raise significant campaign funds.

Valadao, a dairy farmer, first won election to Congress in 2012. But since then, the region has grown increasingly purple; in 2018, Valadao was defeated by Democrat T.J. Cox by 862 votes. Two years later, Valadao won back the seat from Cox by 1,754 votes — 2 percentage points — even as President Biden carried the district by 10 points.

The district already tilted blue, but after redistricting, Democrats have a 17-point voter registration edge. However, Democrats here are not as liberal as their fellow party members in the Bay Area or the Westside.

Valadao is expected to win the primary to face Assemblyman Rudy Salas, a moderate Democrat, in the general election.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.